A Mystic on the 1st Sunday of Lent

First Sunday of Lent Reflection

In the 1980’s Richard Pryor starred in a movie called “Brewster’s Millions.”  He played a lower class everyday guy from New Jersey named Monty Brewster who receives word that his uncle is dead and has left him his vast wealth.  Only, the uncle says he wants to teach Brewster a lesson about saving money.  So, he tells Brewster—via a video will—that he has to spend $30 million dollars in 30 days.  The uncle wants Brewster to be sick of spending money.  If he is able to spend that much in 30 days, he gets $300 million.  So, Brewster starts wasting money immediately.  He redefines the terms extravagant and gratuitous.  He shells out thousands to stay in the best hotel.  He rents hundreds of suits.  He buys everyone dinner and drinks wherever he goes.  He redecorates his hotel suite dozens of times.  He throws away every last dime to get the larger prize of $300 million.

This movie displays a great truth of our faith: gratuitousness.  Like Brewster, God is wasteful and extravagant.  God gives away God without charge and abundantly.  God throws God away—on us, mind you—because that’s who God is.  This is the divine gratuitousness, which calls forth a response from us.  Gratuitousness is a theme of today’s scripture readings and is a central theme for our next mystic guide: a medieval Italian mystic named Jacopone da Todi.

In the Gospel, Jesus definitively walks the path of gratuitousness.  He totally empties himself in response to God’s gratuitousness.  In the desert, Jesus says “no” to all the ways we resist God’s gratuitousness by seeking security, affection, and control as ends in themselves.  In the desert, Jesus was abnormally absorbed in God.  Such is our gratuitous response to God.  We let ourselves, like Jesus, become God-consumed.  The mind of Jesus was strangely and unusually fixed on God.  Letting God so possess us that we become wildly, deliriously, uncontrollably fixed on God, like Jesus, lies at the heart of the message of Jacopone da Todi.  He believed that is God madly in love with us.  God’s gratuitousness is crazy, driving God to become a human being and die on a cross!  For Jacopone, we respond to this crazy gratuitous love of God through wild, gratuitous surrender.

Jacopone da Todi was a fourteenth century mystic born in the Italian village of Todi, He was married at first and worked as a tax lawyer.  When he was 47 his wife died.  This tragedy precipitated Jacopone’s conversion.  He became a Franciscan, moved by the example of St. Francis.  Jacopone had a passion for following Christ Crucified in poverty and contemplation.  Shocked by corruption in the Church, he challenged a ruthless pope named Boniface VIII.  The pope sent him to jail for ten years, and kicked him out of the Franciscans and the Church!  Fortunately, the next pope, Benedict XI, released him.  Jacopone then returned to the Franciscans and lived the remainder of his time with them in peace, a great witness to his spiritual depth. He is known for a series of poetic prayers he calls Lauds.

For Jacopone God becoming flesh in Jesus and dying on a cross displays the utter extravagance and madness of divine love.  It shows how gratuitous God is.  In Laud 65 Jacopone is amazed and even perplexed by God’s desire to become human: “Were these the actions of someone drunk, or out of his senses?  How could You abdicate kingdom and riches, renunciation that verges on madness?”  He speaks to God, “You love So deeply and tenaciously and wildly.”  God’s gratuitousness is tenaciously wild and uncontrollably fierce.

Christ’s emptying of himself through the madness of love is the model of a life of conversion.  “He does not hold back—all of Himself He gives in His desire to be one with you.  Will you not give all of yourself to Him?  Will you not hasten to embrace Him?”  We convert by unreservedly surrendering to this very same love.  In his Lauds Jacopone describes how we surrender to God by immersing ourselves in divine love, dying with Christ Crucified, and submitting to self-annihilation.

In Laud 83, Jacopone confesses, “I long to die drowned in Love.”  We drown in Love when we are immersed in God.  Concretely, immersing ourselves in divine love means remaining in God’s presence as much as we can all day long.  We die drowned in love when we are consciously immersed in God.  We become consumed with the Divine Presence.  Jacopone describes holy people as “submerged in the abyss of Love, overcome by its vastness.”  We become like these holy ones when we let God occupy us entirely.  Such is a gratuitous surrender to God.

For Jacopone, the path of surrender is essentially the path of Christ Crucified.  In Laud 83 he says, “O cross, I fix myself to you and cling to you, that as I die, I may taste Life!”  He knows that by clinging to the cross, that is, by gratuitously letting go of everything, new life emerges.  We have to let go of our private, self-obsessed worlds to become God-obsessed.  Such is new life, which Jacopone describes as “jubilant joy and somersaults of happiness.”  Through the way of the cross we will come to know the delirious joy of God.

The fullness of the way of the cross is our utter annihilation.  Jacopone uses the term “self-annihilation” to describe our total identification with Christ Crucified and our complete gift of self to God.  Jacopone describes the one who is undergoing self-annihilation: “He must strip his soul of all thought…hold on to nothing.”  We let go of all possessing, all thinking, and dissolve in God.  He says we are “reduced to nothing” within and without when God is our all and everything.  But, there is no reason to fear.  Jacopone declares, “the soul, conquered, is conqueror; Annihilated, it lives in triumph.”  Through self-annihilation we discover who we are in God, we discover our Love identity: “What happens to the drop of wine that you pour into the sea?…It is as if it never existed.  So it is with the soul: Love drinks it in.”

Jacopone was “mad with love of Christ.”  Madness is one of his main images for God’s gratuitous love and our gratuitous response.  Jacopone invites us to drown in divine love and to follow Christ Crucified unto self-annihilation.  He calls us to respond to God as Jesus did, by getting absorbed in God gratuitously.  We refuse, though.  We fritter away our love and attention on things that don’t matter.  We prefer our reasonable and safe lives to the wild ecstasy of God: “Sensible people with sensible smiles cannot understand the wildness of your ecstasy!”

Here’s a Lenten challenge: don’t just give something up, but gratuitously surrender to the God who is madly in love with you.  Gratuitous surrender means to let God so consume us that we may become God-possessed and God-intoxicated.  If we follow this path, Jacopone promises that we will be one with God in Christ: “You and your Beloved will become one.”  We will disappear in the mystery of divine love: “The sense of self disappears, for it can never rise to this level, where the infinite charity of God engulfs all.”

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